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Last Chance Tourism

Hey, Bei Bei

I didn’t realize how much panda bears look like people while they (the pandas, I mean) are eating. Walking around his grassy enclosure, the panda looked like … a bear. But then he sat back on his haunches, picked up a piece of sugarcane in his large, surprisingly dexterous paw, and proceeded to enjoy his snack like any human on a mid-afternoon break. He even spilled crumbs down his front. I wonder if other species think we look that adorable when we eat?

I don’t have a good memory of having seen a panda at a zoo before. After one childhood visit to the zoo, I came home with a stuffed panda bear that sat on my shelf for many years, so the pandas must have made an impression on me, but the experience itself has been lost in the nooks and crannies of my brain. Thus my recent visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was technically the first time I registered just how freakin’ cute they are in real life. And just in time, too.

Don’t panic, I’m not saying all panda bears are about to disappear (though they are a vulnerable species). It was just this particular panda that was about to disappear, back to his native China. His name is Bei Bei, and I was not the only person who suddenly rushed to the zoo to say bye-bye before he left (and I am not the only person to have made that joke).

Bei Bei may have been oblivious to his impending moving day, but there’s nothing quite like a deadline to move us humans into action. (Whoever first coined the term “deadline” really tapped into our existentialist dread.) As much as we hate them, you can’t deny that deadlines are effective, even in our travel and leisure. Would I have ever made it to the zoo without a firm departure date for the star attraction?

In addition to Bei Bei, I still have one other urgent sightseeing task: visit the Newseum before it closes permanently on December 31. The Newseum apparently read my mind, as it recently ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post announcing its final day and declaring, “You’re on deadline.” Yes, I KNOW.

In an ideal world, we would all take the time and make the effort to visit attractions before things got down the wire. (This would also help some of those attractions stay in business.) In the real world, this often doesn’t happen.

And sometimes, even with a deadline approaching, it’s better not to go at all. Recently, Australia permanently banned people from climbing Uluru. This massive rock monolith is considered sacred to the aboriginal Anangu people, and for decades the Anangu have been nicely asking people not to climb it. But visitors didn’t care and kept climbing it anyway. (Please don’t be that kind of tourist.) Finally, rightfully, the government agreed to cut off access. And sadly, predictably, there was a long line of people waiting to climb it on the last day. Just because it’s your “last chance” doesn’t mean you should take it.

But for something as simple as playing hooky to go to the zoo on a weekday afternoon, it’s a no-brainer: don’t pass up your shot. Pretend you’re on deadline, even if you’re not.

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